When tech solutions really matter

Recently, there’s been a rising murmur of dissatisfaction about the tech community falling out of touch with the real world. It’s hard to argue the point when you’re confronted by the plethora of on-demand sushi-delivery apps, dog-walker matching services, and WiFi-connected juicers. Philosopher Andrew Taggart calls this the “problematisation of the world”, an unnecessary and idiotic need to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade.

Meanwhile, in the US at least, the social cleft between citizens widens. Last month, this magazine’s cover story outlined the stark economic divide in Silicon Valley, heartland of the tech-as-solution philosophy. In San Francisco, which launched a department of homelessness last year, some members of marginalised communities — LGBT, the elderly, racial minorities — are still struggling without basic necessities, including healthcare, housing and jobs. The pockets of privilege, it seems, only provide solutions for the needs of their own denizens. Anyone that doesn’t fit the mould is starting to get left behind.

I recently spent a few days with Tiara, a black transgender refugee from a Harare ghetto, who found herself homeless in Washington DC. Tech was the farthest thing from my mind as I tried to understand how she coped. But, it turns out, outside of the standard tech hubs, people are harnessing existing technology in unexpectedly life-changing ways. Tiara and her smartphone were inseparable. While homeless in New York City, she would ride the Staten Island Ferry all night so she could use WiFi in the ferry terminal. Her phone was a lifeline on the streets — she used it to check in with family and to locate temporary shelters on particularly cold nights. On Facebook, she discovered a community of trans activists who helped her find temporary housing and work in DC.

Through Tiara, I discovered a DC start-up, LGBT Tech, a four-year-old non-profit that studies how LGBT people use technology to feel included and safe in their local communities. Its founder Chris Wood told me that when he first suspected he was gay about a decade ago, he was too afraid to tell his parents. Instead, he frequented chat rooms to communicate with others in the gay community. “When you’re surrounded by religious or conservative family or friends, sometimes the only potential escape is online,” he said. “Today, nothing’s changed. Sometimes a smartphone is all these kids have to access a support system.”

In the US, more than 40 per cent of homeless youth identify as LGBT. As part of a research study, Wood’s company handed out 25 smartphones with free data to homeless LGBT youth in the DC area. The study found the young people were using the phones to connect with their peers through Instagram and Snapchat, to reach out to trans health professionals and to potential employers. It helped them survive. The phone programme is now being rolled out in other cities.

Another DC tech start-up, Tabletribes, is attempting to repair the fractures between the disparate communities across the US, using a social-organising app. Hosan Lee, its young founder, believes a lack of empathy is one cause of the increased racial and religious agitation, and notes a declining social trust among those of us living in siloed online networks. To bridge isolated communities, she organises meetings in neighbourhoods around the city. Facilitated conversations among the groups centre on topics such as race, Islamophobia, politics and socio-economic exclusion. Lee’s goal is to foster debate, exchange and ultimately better understanding of the “other”.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Swedish company Doro sells a range of smartphones aimed at octogenarians, complete with an emergency assistance button, hearing-aid compatibility and extra-large display.

While I still enjoy the occasional rant against ridiculous new ideas coming out of traditional tech hubs (Tinder for dogs!), it’s time we stop expecting them to deliver solutions, and go to new places for inspiration. Silicon Valley’s mantra may be about changing the world, but that is already happening elsewhere — if you just look.

Madhumita Murgia is the FT’s European technology correspondent

Illustration by Paté

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